To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day in April, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) updated and reissued its fifty-three-page report “The Environmentalist’s Guide to a Sensible Immigration Policy.” Fingering “immigration-related population growth” as the “principal cause” of urban sprawl, the report insisted that “so-called environmentalists pretend as if this connection does not exist.” And what was FAIR’s response to the land speculation, overdevelopment and three-car mentality that drive sprawl? As on nearly every issue, the solution, it said, was to cut immigration to the bone and put an end to the policy of family reunification.
FAIR is the nation’s most influential anti-immigrant organization; its legal kingpin, Kris Kobach, drafted Arizona’s chilling SB 1070 and is the go-to guy for states and counties looking to further criminalize the undocumented. But beyond cultivating hard-right legislators, FAIR and its satellite groups have been busy greenwashing the nativist movement for more than a decade, spinning environmental arguments to make the case for their version of population reduction. Virtually every progressive eco-cause—biodiversity, water conservation, deforestation, wilderness protection, even environmental justice—has been grist for their mill.
Most recently, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a spinoff of FAIR, has focused on the damage done by the traffic of coyotes and their border-crossing clients to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Huachuca Mountains and Coronado National Forest in southeastern Arizona. “How long will these beautiful lands remain unspoiled if the border is not secured?” a CIS press release asked. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife have argued that most of the ecological mayhem in these areas is a result of the construction and maintenance of the border fence’s “tactical infrastructure,” which was exempted from all environmental and historic preservation laws by the Bush administration. But CIS is more interested in tapping a deep vein of public anxiety that connects the defense of pristine resources to the defense of racial purity. In a grotesque but telling offshoot, a number of humanitarian volunteers from Tucson-based No More Deaths, who leave plastic containers of water on migrant trails in the desert, have been arrested on charges of “littering.” Meanwhile, the containers have been slashed repeatedly by Minutemen vigilantes and Border Patrol guards, who then leave the useless plastic on the desert floor.
The connection FAIR makes between immigration and sprawl is equally specious. Low-wage immigrants are much more likely to live lightly in central-city neighborhoods than the US-born population, who are more likely to settle in suburban subdivisions with high-carbon footprints. Nor is there any necessary correlation between population size or density and abuse of resources. How we produce and consume energy is a much more important determinant of pollution than our numbers. But FAIR’s shady reasoning is typical of the way it has pushed xenophobia as green wisdom in order to win mainstream acceptance and divide its critics.
Population stabilization has been taboo for progressive greens since the late 1970s. But anti-immigrationists like FAIR founder John Tanton, a former Sierra Club activist, cut their teeth on the overpopulation anxiety that permeated the environmental movement earlier in that decade. Subsequently, they used the Malthusian lingo of resource scarcity, carrying capacity (the maximum population an environment can sustain indefinitely) and overshoot (when a population exceeds its carrying capacity) to launder the image of the white nationalists with whom they became allies. When climate change became a public issue, it gave fresh impetus to what population specialist Betsy Hartmann has called the “greening of hate.” CIS and other FAIR spinoffs like NumbersUSA and Population-Environment Balance, along with the sympathetic Carrying Capacity Network, have all touted immigration as the chief reason for the rise in greenhouse gas emissions—as low-carbon immigrants adopted the high-carbon lifestyles of the rich countries to which they had moved.